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 Issues | Church History | James Hannington


Great Churchmen No. 22

James Hannington (1847-1885)

by F. E. Hansford, F. R. S. A.

First Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa

Published by Church Book Room Press


Last Journey

And now began his careful preparations for that last journey into the interior. By patience and tact—for the country of the Masai was greatly dreaded—he managed to get together about two hundred porters, some of whom were destined for Chagga and some to travel with him to Kavirondo. With William Jones (a native clergyman whom he had recently ordained) as his able and devoted lieutenant, he led his “army of peace” out of Rabai on July 23rd.

Despite the frequent and exhausting labour involved in cutting a way through dense jungle, and the menacing attitude displayed by armed bands of ferocious natives who demanded gifts, every day was begun and concluded with public prayer. Ngongo a Bagas was reached on August 25th. Here, in the country of the Wa-Kikuyu, Hannington endeavoured to obtain food for his starving porters who
wailed and clamoured throughout the night, exclaiming, like the Israelites of old, that they had been brought forth into the wilderness to perish with hunger. But, though he succeeded in getting some slender supplies, the Wa-Kikuyu proved treacherous, and, even as their women-folk traded with the strangers, they raised their war-cry, brandished their weapons and shot poisoned arrows at Hannington’s men. Though he had more than once faced death at the hands of these rapacious tribesmen, the Bishop, with superb courage, made up his mind to personally negotiate all future purchasing. “He was determined, at all costs,” wrote Barton, “to win their confidence, and to teach them, by firm and just treatment, that the good faith of a Christian might be implicitly relied upon.”

By September 8th the caravan was on the move again. The Wa-Kikuyu, as a parting gesture, made a dastardly attack upon the sick who were being carried in the rear. On September 9th the River Kedong was crossed, and next day found the travellers within sight of Lake Naivasha and the haunts of the notorious Masai tribe. Within forty-eight hours their camp was overrun with those troublesome hordes. The Masai women brought all kinds of things for sale, the men invaded the tents and pilfered from bales and boxes, while the presence of the boastful and blood-thirsty young warriors (the El Moran) made constant vigilance imperative.

Early in October they came to Kwa Sakwa where the chief proved amiable and helpful, allowing them unimpeded passage towards Kwa Sundu. Here the native people, having recently suffered the horrors of a slave raid at the hands of the Swahili, were, naturally enough, suspicious of the strangers. But when they understood that Hannington and his company had no predatory intentions they became friendly and communicative, and in their tree-shaded, hill-top village the caravan sojourned until October 11th. The Bishop remarked in his diary: “The natives seem good-natured and polite to strangers, and are by no means importunate. Oh, that we might possess fair Kavirondo for Christ!”

                                                                            *   *   *   *   *

During the halt at Kwa Sundu the Bishop had formed the intention of proceeding to the Lake with some fifty picked porters, leaving William Jones in charge of the main body of the caravan. He planned to visit the missionaries in Uganda and ascertain whether any from Rubaga desired to return to the coast, with the main caravan, by the new route through Kavirondo: he would himself return by the old route after visiting the churches that lay to the south of the Lake. Accordingly on October 12th Hannington set out with his small lightly-loaded company. Day after day Jones waited for tidings from him, and as the anxious days lengthened into weeks alarm was felt for the Bishop’s safety. At last, on Sunday, November 8th, the tragic—and at first almost unbelievable—news was brought by three of Hannington’s porters that the Bishop and certain of his followers had been killed by order of Mwanga—the weak, unstable, and easily-influenced boy-king who had succeeded the large-hearted and discerning Mtèsa.

The Bishop’s sketch-book and his closely-written diary (both fortunately recovered after his death) tell us, more eloquently and poignantly than any other record, the story of his closing days. During the week following that fatal twelfth of October, when, despite a painful abscess in his leg, he had departed from Kwa Sundu, the Bishop walked some 170 miles. It was just a week after his setting forth that he came across unmistakable evidence of inter-tribal war, and he knew he had arrived “in a troublesome country”. On October 21st, as he was viewing the Nile from a hill-top, whither he had been enticed by a renegade Mahommedan, he was seized by a score of ruffians who threw him violently to the ground, robbed him, and dragged him along bodily for more than an hour before thrusting him into a hut as a prisoner of the Sultan, who, he soon learned, would communicate with Mwanga concerning his ultimate destination. What sufferings and indignities the next week held for him his diary reveals—the evil smelling, rat- and lice-infested hut, the raillery of his noisy, foul- tongued guards, the unwelcome visits from detachments of the chief’s wives who viewed with amusement this human curiosity, and a return of the fever. Bruised and strained and shattered, he broke down, for a very brief while, under the shock. “As I fell exhausted on my bed,” the diary records, “I burst into tears—health seems to be quite giving way.” But the dark moment passed, for he adds: “Yet I ought to be praising His Holy Name—and I do.” In the long hours of captivity he found his chiefest comfort in his Bible—and especially in Psalms 27 and 28 and in St. Matthew
5, 44-45.

The last entry in the diary, probably made just before he was led out to suffer death, ran thus: Oct. 29th, Thursday.—(Eighth day’s prison.) I can hear no news, but was held up by Psalm xxx., which came with great power. A hyena howled near me last night, smelling a sick man, but I hope it is not to have me yet.”

On that day the Bishop, still ignorant of the fate that awaited him, was taken from his noisome hut to a place remote from the village, where he found his trembling porters stripped and bound, and some of them yoked with wooden slave-collars—all guarded by native soldiers. They, like himself, had been led forth to die. A signal-gun was discharged, and the blood-thirsty warriors rushed upon the caravan-men while the Bishop’s two guards thrust their ready spears into his wasted and weary body. The Rev. E. C. Dawson has left us this unforgettable account of the martyr’s end:

“In that supreme moment we have the happiness of knowing that the Bishop faced his destiny like a Christian and a man. . . . He made one last use of that commanding mien which never failed to secure for him the respect of the most savage. Drawing himself up he looked around, and as they momentarily hesitated he spoke a few words which graved themselves upon their memories, and which they afterwards repeated just as they were heard. He bade them tell the king that he was about to die for the Ba-ganda, and that he purchased the road to Buganda with his life.”

Those final heroic words, together with the last written message he ever sent to his friends in England: “If this be the last chapter of my earthly history, then the next will be the first page of the heavenly—no blots and smudges, no incoherence, but sweet converse in the presence of the Lamb!”

—must surely form his best epitaph.

                                                                                 *   *   *   *   *

In the chapel-of-ease of St. George’s, Hurstpierpoint, where he ministered for seven fruitful years, is a memorial brass to the Right Rev. James Hannington, D.D., Bishop and Martyr, while the Hannington Chapel commemorates him in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Kampala (Uganda). But what would most have rejoiced him in the hour of his death, could he but have known, is the fact that a grandson of the warrior who delivered the fatal spear-thrust has been ordained and is now working in the mission-fields of Tanganyika. But James Hannington’s most lasting memorial will surely be the record of his patient, courageous, and unselfish Christian labours, which will never cease to be an inspiration and a challenge to all who seek to follow what he himself called “the uphill, struggling path” of missionary endeavour.


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Related Links
James Hannington
BulletHansford - introduction
BulletHansford - Ordination & Conversion
BulletHansford - Uganda
BulletHansford - Consecration as Bishop
BulletHansford - Last Journey


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